Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Can Poetry Be Resuscitated?

So poetry is dead- or, if not dead, then moribund.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) surveyed over 37,000 Americans in 2012 to find out about their exposure to and participation in the arts (visual, literary, performance, etc.). Not surprisingly (but no less disappointingly) only 7% reported reading any poetry in the preceding year, a number down 55% from the same survey back in 2002!

How has poetry become so marginalised, so limited to a small, mostly academic audience in the US (and probably in most affluent 'western' cultures) when poetry and poets have been celebrated and revered in other cultures (e.g., Middle Eastern and Latin American) elsewhere in the world?

How at a time when the internet and social media can make poetry and dialogue about poetry so accessible, at a time when there is a plethora of creative writing programmes and literary journals, both online and in print, has poetry disappeared from public view?

One reason, as has been discussed in previous posts, is that the teaching of poetry at secondary (and probably university level as well) has had the chilling effect of making poetry seem inaccessible and esoteric. In its emphasis on the 'the classic' poems and poets (no disrespect toward Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats et al intended!) at the expense of more accessible, topical contemporary works, the traditional high school poetry curriculum has turned poetry into a historic relic to be studied from an emotional and temporal distance. In its emphasis on analysis rather than the aural and emotional impact of poetry, the traditional curriculum has turned the reading of poetry into a boring, intellectual exercise to be dreaded rather than embraced.

As Dana Gioia suggested in his 1991 essay entitled Can Poetry Matter?:

"Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future."

Despite the support poetry has received from academia (in the form of funded literary journals, teaching positions for poets, development of MFA programmes, etc.), its ever tighter and more claustrophobic  relationship with academia has also served to isolate it and reinforce its inaccessibility. As poetry has increasingly been drawn into the realm of academia for its survival, academia has, in turn, become increasingly protective of it. What has resulted from this relationship is a kind of poetry that is more inwardly and pedantically focused rather than an art form that speaks plainly to the quotidian experience of a wider readership.

Poetry can be resuscitated, but as the NEA data suggests, it must be done quickly. More than any other literary genre, poetry can easily fit inside a busy modern life. Unlike a novel, a book of poetry can be picked up and put down without losing one's place. One can begin in the middle or even the end if so inclined. Read it aloud or go listen to someone else read it. As William Carlos Williams warned in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

                                    It is difficult
                     to get the news from poems
                              yet men die miserably every day
                                     for lack
                     of what is found there.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

June's Favourite Poet

This month check out the writing of insurance salesman/poet Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the US. He's a great, accessible reintroduction to poetry for those still frightened and intimidated by it.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Use of Tone in Poetry

Another key to the making and enjoyment of a good poem is the element of tone. The concept of tone is somewhat difficult to define but it can be thought of as the attitude of the poet (or the speaker of the poem) toward the poem or its subject matter- even toward the audience of the poem. The tone of the poem can carry loads of hidden meaning (remember your mother saying to you, I don’t like the tone of your voice?) or can itself be what the poem is ‘about.’ The tone can be laid out or amplified by the language the poet uses, the imagery, the meter, and the diction.

One of my favorite examples of how effectively tone can be used to carry the weight of a poem is Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays: (to hear Robert Hayden movingly read this poem, click here.)

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

This is a poem of reticence, a cold, angry place but what makes it so memorable is that it is also a place of reverence for the poet’s father and regret for the poet’s self-centeredness and lack of insight. The first stanza is full of hard consonant sounds (especially ‘k’ : blueblack cold, cracked hands that ached, banked fires) that sets the reader down in a cold, angry, relentlessly blue-collar place that slowly begins to warm in both temperature and language though the father, whose simple yet profound actions on behalf of the poet elevate him to a lofty position, remains largely unreachable. One can almost feel Hayden’s aching remorse in those last two lines, the repetition of the first half of his question emphasizing the obvious, unspoken answer.

Another favorite is Jack  Gilbert’s Michiko Dead which details how the poet has dealt with the death of his wife. It’s tone is amazingly devoid of any hint of sorrow but is quite matter-of-factual about how one deals with tremendous grief. It is that very understated, detail-laden tone that gives the poem its lasting power (Notice too how the appearance of the poem on the page mimics the very box he describes carrying!):

He manages like somebody carrying a box   
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,   
he moves the hands forward, hooking them   
on the corners, pulling the weight against   
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   
the man can hold underneath again, so that   
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

Tone does not need to be one-dimensional. It can also shift, sometimes abruptly, which can add to the enjoyment of the poem. A good example of this is in Richard Wilbur’s  A Barred Owl:

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

The first stanza delightfully describes the calming of a small child who has been frightened by the sound of an owl. It is very domestic and calming in its tone but this tone abruptly shifts in the poem’s second stanza wherein the poet revisits the gruesome truth behind the parent’s/poet’s soothing words. The abruptness of the change lends a sinister air to the obscuring power of words.

The tone of a poem is an element of the poem’s presentation that can often be felt viscerally and requires no special degree in Poetics and Prosody to appreciate. Try reading the next poem you read (and I hope that it will be soon) with a little less trepidation, secure in the knowledge that by listening and feeling for the poem’s tone, you are ‘getting’ a good deal of what the poem is likely ‘about.’